Friday, May 8, 2020

The Flavor of Smartness

"What is the flavor of smartness?"

The kindergarten teacher asked that question of her students through the computer screen.
As an observer I wrote it down in my notes...
and promptly began to consider such a compelling question.

What is the flavor of smartness?

The kindergarteners looked through their screens at their teacher.
She was wearing a plastic shield over her face.
She was sitting in her empty classroom with the afternoon kindergarten teacher sitting a proper distance away.

The teacher lets the question sit in the air...and then quickly says that the flavor of smartness is chocolate chip cookies.

She leans in to the screen and asks her students what they think the flavor of smartness might be.

I am an extra box on the grid of people attending this virtual classroom.
I observe teachers for my job.
I watch them on the tightrope of teaching...twisting to connect with a student...walking with flare to model the latest educational concept...gripping the rope as they barely hang on as it sways with uncertainty and upheaval.

Mostly I observe beginning teachers...but sometimes I am gifted with a shining moment of academic clarity or super human compassion from the resident teacher that generously shares the classroom with and mentors my student teachers.

This was one of those times.

What is happening in virtual classrooms right now has never been done before.
It is innovative.

Teachers are exposed like never before.

The ones I see, labor for hours figuring out an app or a website or a way forward for students.
They read stories.
Do art projects.
Tackle science experiments.
Sing and dance.
Teach math and history...
all over a screen.

They try to make the distance shorter with familiarity.
They use pocket charts or posters or puppets that the students know from school.
They try to maintain the routines that made their classroom a community.
They smile and cheer over a screen.

What is left unsaid is the colossal loss for the students.
Classrooms are more than the shared space.
They are more than the students and teachers.

They are a magical brew of intimacy and knowing...the instantaneous teacher response to a student's facial expression or body language...the unwritten comfort of a teacher placing a student in a specific space...or the hand over hand guidance of beginning writing...or the millions of micro-encouraging moments that teachers do without even thinking...
the smile...the eyebrow uplift...the wink...the nod...the deep breath.

It's the give and take of conversation...and commotion...
that kids and adults have everyday in the classroom.

All of that is lost today.

But for a split second, the magic happened over the screen with that mind-tickling question.


Eight weeks earlier...that same mentor teacher used her decades of knowledge of five year olds and her deep understanding that all students want to learn...and tried something unusual with a student who was struggling.

It was center time and this student was working on handwriting and letter formation. 
The student put his head down.
Forming words with a pencil, fitting it onto a all seemed like too much.

In order to avoid that, the student left the table and meandered over to the easel. 
He crawled underneath it.
Positioned himself like the roly poly bugs the kindergarteners find in the garden.

Most teachers would cajole the student...or reprimand the student...or sigh at the student and imply that the student was making a bad choice.

The master teacher chose none of those options.

Instead, she was curious.

She asked a question:
"I see you are over here in a tucked in place but you don't look happy. Do you know why?"

The student pointed at the table.

She asked him if he would like to try writing in this small tucked in space.

He nodded.

The teacher created a hard, stable writing platform resting on two wooden blocks...

After a while, the student walked himself back over to the larger table where students were working on handwriting.

The teacher made space for the student to learn.
She sent the message that she knew the student could do the work.
She offered her encouragement and her belief in him.

She adjusted and modified.
While at the same time holding the student to the same expectations as other students.

Her ability to be curious instead of angry allowed the moment to be educational and productive.

I just took notes.


What is the flavor of smartness?

Like so much of life, there is no right answer.
It is wide open.

Is it the crisp freshness of a crunchy apple?
The cozy of hot buttered cinnamon toast?
The comfort of ginger peach tea?
The tang of an orange?
The exotic gift of mangoes?

The flavor of smartness is within every student.
It takes a master chef to see the beauty in each ingredient.
To find a way to bring out the flavors in a complex dish.

Whether it is done over a screen or in the classroom, 
teachers find a way to bring out the flavor of smartness in their students.

Sometimes impossible...yet they do.

May we stop and notice the impossible done with grace.
Thank a teacher. Today.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Thoughts on a Normal Day in the Time of Coronavirus

From the essay: Let Me Hold You While I May by Mary Jean Irion

Today was a normal day...Patrick home from Spring Break, Caroline off to school, John off to work, dogs begging for a walk and me with work to do.

Dinner to make.
Chores to be done.
Emails to reply to.
Bills to pay.

It all feels very surreal as I know a tsunami of illness will soon be consuming my community and my country.

We can pretend that it's not coming...but with social media, we can allow ourselves a peek into what is happening in confined and locked down Italy, in China, in South Korea.

We get the notices that games are cancelled, meetings delayed, events postponed and
schools sure to be closing soon.

But, today, is a normal day.
Sunshine and spring breezes.

I don't know anymore than the average American...but I can feel the anxiety...the unsureness of the moment and I have student teachers to guide...and so I offer some thoughts.

This is the email that I sent to my student teachers this morning.

I hope it helps.


We are all wondering what is going to happen in the next few weeks with our teaching program, the EdTPA and the coronavirus escalation.

It's a serious question that has no good answer.

So, today, we get to soak in the questions
that have no clear answer.

Not everyday is given to considering the hard questions of life...but today is one.

None of us have ever dealt with a pandemic before.

We don’t know how quickly it will spread, how much it will impact our health or the larger effect on our communities and vulnerable loved ones.

I have been in isolation before when my son Patrick was three years old and had leukemia.
He had zero detectable white blood cells and so we were quarantined for over 60 days...
just me and Patrick.

I was scared out of my mind that he would catch any and all terrible diseases (he did not!)...and I was mad about it and did not want to be quarantined at all.
I wanted to protest and pout.

Sometimes, it's a terrible thing to be an adult and that was one of those times.

Being quarantined was the safest thing to do...
and so we did it...
but we wanted more than just sitting at home.

We needed to be away from people.

But did we really have to stay cooped up inside?

The doctors just told us to stay away from people so I made the executive decision to take some adventures away from home...and away from people.
We got creative.

We got really good at finding empty parks, empty beaches, empty paths to walk slowly.
We took long drives and noticed the beauty just outside the window.
We danced and played and enjoyed our days.

It was during these 60 days that I developed this mantra:
Nothing is worth more than this day.

Our day, this day, is all we have...even if it is unknown or unexpectedly hard...
it is still a precious gift.

Don’t spend time worrying about the program...
we will find a way to have you earn your credential and get you ready to find a job.

Do spend time finding ways to support one another through this unexpected, weird time.

If you need a place to stay or a ride to somewhere or food or anything, I can help.

My daughter is a brand new nurse in the largest most critical care hospital in Oregon, so I am thinking of ways to support her and the people she works with...
if you have a good idea, let me know.

As with anything difficult, there will be amazing opportunities and revelations that we would never learn otherwise...

I’m curious to see those.

I believe that this time will provide a unique opportunity for us to grow our hearts bigger,
to become more generous,
to find a way to see ourselves in others.

It feels like perfect timing for that.

Sending love to all of us.

One of the favorite parts of my Normal Day: these guys! 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Little Things

It's been a hard few days...real hard...and when that happens I sneak off to one of my favorite places in my town: 
a redwood grove.

California redwoods are slow growing and have no business being in my part of California.

They are coastal.
I'm not.

They don't like heat.
My summers routinely have 100 degree days.

Every single one of these redwoods is an outrageous miracle.

They didn't get the memo that this isn't their habitat.

That's because they were tenderly planted by people who should have known better.
People who didn't listen to the odds-makers.

Why not have a redwood grove in Davis?

So, in the late 1930's a band of renegade redwood lovers, planted and watered and BELIEVED IN the redwoods...
BELIEVED IN the beauty of this dream.

They kept at it until the impossible happened.

90 years later we have a redwood grove in the middle of the central valley!

Every time things feel heavy...or discouraging...or impossible...
I make my way to the redwood grove and find comfort in this tiny grove of impossibility-made-real.

I soak up the beauty.
I imagine the people who took the time to plant and tend the baby redwoods so long ago.
I thank them.

So, as the past few days have been careening and I watch Republicans choose themselves over our country...and watch a rude, despicable person lead our country...and watch with fatigue at the vendettas and the grievances from a man who has literally everything...I come to the redwoods.

I decide to make it a Daily Double.

I'll see your Impossible-That-Is-Real and double it...
calling my son, who the world deems intellectually disabled, AT HIS COLLEGE.

Yes, just like those people in the central valley heat who planted redwoods, 
some educators planted another incredible impossibility:
college options for those with an intellectual disability.

Who does that?

Who believes so much in dignity and equity and freedom that they build the impossible??

The same kind of people who plant redwoods in Davis.

The kind of people who don't listen to the nay-sayers.
The people who know that the long odds are worth it.
The people willing to do the work.

The people who tend so carefully to the people that the rest of the world overlooks.

I called Patrick, my 20 year old with Down Syndrome...and he didn't pick up.
College life is like that, you know.
He's busy.

So I continued my walk and looked up.

Redwoods have soft's thick and tough but springy to the's a bit of magic...
a reminder that just because you're big doesn't mean you can't be soft too...
and redwoods have incredibly durable, beautiful wood underneath that bark.

So softness is no indicator of strength.

As I am walking, my phone rings...with Facetime.
My 20 year old is smiling and joyful.
Turns out: college is pretty awesome.

He's doing his laundry.
Folding clothes and chatting.
Laughing and smiling.

He's got his friends close by...
they share stories with me of what's been going on...
filling in the details of the little bits I hear about Patrick's days.

It's so ordinary that it takes my breath away.

I'm staring at Patrick's redwood grove of Impossiblility-Made-Real.

When Patrick was born, all the outside world told me were the things Patrick was not going to be able to do.

Are you kidding?

That didn't exist.

As I held tiny newborn Patrick, my obstetrician told me what a gift it was that Patrick would be living with me for the rest of his life.
Implied that he would be a very large lamp in our living room.
Going nowhere.

No one told me Patrick would have dreams of his own.
Or thoughts of his own.
Or opinions.

No one - that I knew - imagined a world where Patrick would be a vibrant adult.

But somebody did.

On the other side of the country, a group of parents and a group of educators created a program where an independent, supported adulthood could begin.

They planted it.
Tended it.
Ignored the non-believers.

College for people with disabilities.

Why shouldn't people with disabilities do their laundry with friends?
Why shouldn't people with disabilities attend college?
Why shouldn't they imagine a life with a solid job, a group of friends, and supported living?

Of course they should.

So today, I'm sprinkling the world with two stories of POSSIBILITY.

With enough tending, redwoods can grow in unlikely places.
With enough tending, people with Down Syndrome can go away to college.

In a cosmic way, I think that the redwoods and Patrick at college are intertwined.

There's no doubt that living in a place where the impossible really does exist
 helps to nurture other crazy, out-of-bounds dreams.

So, know that the impossible IS possible.

If you're lucky, you might even get a call.
You might witness the ordinary routine of laundry being done far away...
with smiles and chatter from friends.

You might learn the perfectly boring details of what your son had for dinner...
or what he's doing this week-end.

You might be graced with the little details of life.
That we all know aren't little at all.

You might be privileged to see a life that is an outrageous miracle.
Made possible by those that believed in the impossible.

Grateful doesn't cover it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Radical Kinship - Somebody To Talk To

I was busy.

That's how these stories always start.

Thinking about MY things...MY obligations...MY emails that hadn't been returned...or MY laundry that wasn't done...or MY leak at MY home...


I was looking down...sitting on a stoop in a public park...when he asked me if I was ok.

He checked in.

A stranger.

I looked up and the first thing I noticed was the bird...
I would find out later that it was a Goffins Cockatoo.

A cockatoo just like this was sitting on this guy's shoulder.

Truthfully, the next thing I noticed was the poop of the cockatoo on the guy's white t-shirt...I suddenly realized that this cockatoo and this guy were besties...I mean, I haven't worn anyone's poop around on my shirt...but I have worn spit up...plenty of times...and I thought of those times...remembered how short the Spit Up Era really is and answered his question.

I was ok...just sitting.

He asked me if I knew Ed Sheeran (yes) and if I'd seen him sing with Andrea Bocceli (yes) - 
treat yourself here to that incredible musical gift:

That seemed like an unusual opening line...but I went with it.

He asked me if I had seen another amazing singing performance...I hadn' he shared his phone with me and I watched it...a four minute video of two children making musical magic...watched it in the cool of the shade in a park...
and that four minute pause was the knob on the telescope that brings things into focus.

When I looked up...I could see.
Really see.

This man with the gentle eyes and scruffy days old white beard, was wearing a vest of loneliness.
It was palpable...and painful.

We talked some more about Maya, his amazing cockatoo. About her playfulness and cleverness and the way the Goffins Cockatoo almost went extinct...but bird lovers from the United Staes and Australia worked together to save the species.

About how he ended up sleeping in his car near the he would find a place to stay.soon.

About his life of knowing that something was wrong with his body - they told him it was polio - but recently discovered through an MRI that it was trauma from forceps 
and instead he was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy...
I looked down to see one strong leg and one leg that was so thin it looked painful to walk on.

We talked about our struggles...and the gift of seeing the resilience in the students who graduated from Paradise High School - a town that had been burned to the ground this November - and in particular, a student who painted on his graduation cap the mantra: 
Trust Your Struggle

It was then that I learned his name: Tom.

We talked some more about Maya...
as she tickled me with her claws and crawled all over my shoulders.

We both agreed that this park, McKinley Park, was very special...that it brought rest and hope and joy with its big trees, walking path and rose garden.

And, then the spell was broken...real life came tugging to pick up...places to be.

I said good-bye to Tom...but he stayed with me as I got in my dirty car and imagined having to sleep there.

I found a few dollars and drove down the street to his car...and there he was...back inside.

Did it feel safe?

I knocked on his window and tried to give him a few dollars.

He shooed away the money and paid me back with this truth:
"I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to have had somebody to talk to."

I told him I felt the same...our conversation was a gift.

Sometimes we just need someone to acknowledge that we are on the planet at the same time.
That we are companions on this journey. 

As Ram Dass says so well:

We need to know we are not alone.

Tom and Maya gave me that extraordinary gift yesterday.

My gift to you is to share them...for you to see them too.

Be on the lookout for a man with kind eyes and a Goffins Cockatoo named Maya...if you're lucky, you might get to listen to a song...and have a bird dance across your shoulders.

Thank you, Tom...and Maya. 
Thank you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Making Time For Monet

“It's on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. 
So we must dig and delve unceasingly.”
- Claude Monet

It was a crazy busy included a two hour drive through traffic...a forgotten wallet and all sorts of must-dos pushed over the side.

I didn't have time for this.

It was decadent...and dreamy...a morning with Monet and some friends??

My heart said YES...and I've gotten good at following those whispers so I made it happen.

Two of my childhood friends were going to meet me in San Francisco.

Waking up, I heard about a terrible accident on the Bay I called my friends and said that I would take a different way into the city in the hopes that I could get the tickets...and a chance at signing up for the docent led tour.

They had really only one way over to the city so they would be late...we'd cross our fingers and hope it worked out.

As I was driving, I realized that I left my wallet at home.


So, as I'm driving I'm considering all the pockets in my car that might have some money stashed away...I'm wondering how I will pay for parking...and decide I can mooch off these people who have known me for more than a few decades.

They know my slumber party secrets for goodness sake.
They've seen my dad in his underwear...they would pay for parking.

I made it to the ticket counter and pleaded my case.

Would she let me buy tickets if I could tell her my credit card number?
Would she set aside tickets?

Finally, I figured out a way to get the the spot for a tour and had time to look around.

I was sitting in a world class myself...with nothing but time.

It was a long deep breath of goodness.

I paused in reverence of those who think to make museums and create galleries and find the art that belongs.

It takes vision and money and talent to create a space like the DeYoung Museum...
and as I was soaking up all that hard work I was so very grateful.

Breathlessly, my friends arrive.

We join the tour with seconds to spare...and we are plunged into hues of purples and blues and yellows and greens and Monet's garden of agapanthus and lilies and waterlilies floating under a Japanese bridge.

We learn that Monet painted every day, starting at 4am...and that these later years were filled with sorrow and loss.

His wife of thirty years dies.
His son dies.
World War One is tearing his country apart...and killing a generation of Frenchmen.

All through the sorrow, he paints.

He paints the same scenes over and over...noticing that it is never the same...always changing...forever a mystery...
intangible in its impermanence...tantalizing in its mystery.

Yes, Monet had his garden...and it was his garden that he considered his masterpiece.

His paintings were attempts to capture the beauty and freeze it for the moment.

Standing amidst these waterlilies and weeping willows I realized that Monet didn't paint when everything was working in his life.

He painted when everything wasn't.

He painted through the sorrow...during the he was going blind.

He just painted.

His Herculean efforts to find a way to cherish the passing acknowledge the sacred in the SEE what his days offered him...worked its way into my heart.

It finally dawned on me that the crappy times, the boring times, the shockingly horrible times are just exactly that...

Like the waterlilies and the is ever changing.

Waiting for the right minute isn't a thing.

There is no right minute.

There is only this minute.

Make time for it, because then it's gone.

Hanging out with some Monets today brought my heart some peace.
It suffused me with joy.

What a gift.

After we finished with the exhibit, we walked over to the Japanese Tea Garden.
It wasn't Monet's garden but it was just as beautiful.

Because we had eyes that were ready to see.
We lingered amid the bonsai trees.
In the middle of a giant city...we sat in a literal zen garden...and the calm enveloped us.

There's a lot of hard out there.

A lot of tragedy...sadness and cruelty.

But then are waterlilies.
And azaleas...
And friends.

Not to mention Monet.

It's awful and amazing.
At the same time.

So, today, I'm grateful for makers...and moments with friends.
I'm grateful for the ordinary nuisance of traffic...a forgotten wallet...a maze of annoyances that peppered this day...because without them, it wouldn't have been today.

My one and only April 30, 2019.
Never to be repeated.
Grateful for this moment right now.
Big. Deep. Zen Breaths.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


"There is a voice that doesn't use words. Listen." - Rumi

It's been a hard few days.
The skies are gloomy.
The weather is cold.
My interior life duplicates what the exterior world provides.

I talk to someone who spends her days working with families who have children with disabilities who have lost everything in a massive, all-consuming wildfire.

There is no housing for any of they squish themselves into RVs and try to make it work.

The reservoir that provides all of the water for this same community has been contaminated with metals and chemicals and other toxic items all oozing into the water.

No housing.
No potable water.
No jobs.

It's catastrophic.

To top it off, our president enjoys punishing people for their tragedy.

Maybe it's because he has always had a home.
Always had access to drinking water.
Always known safety.

His bitterness seeps into our collective conscience as he tweets his condemnation for the unpreparedness for the fires.

There is no understanding loss.
Or cruelty.

As Jewel sings so well, "Only kindness matters."

These past few days, sadness seeping in...the pain of so many much loss...

I gift myself with a visit to my local coffee store.
I delight in my order,
smile my shy smile and say,
"I'd like Enlightenment please."

They steam up some milk, coat the cup with honey, add some green tea and call it Enlightenment.
[It should be noted that I could also order Bliss...but Enlightenment wins out every time.]

On my way out the door, someone calls my name.
It's a person I know only a bit...but she brings sunshine with her...serious calmness...and although I don't know her that well, 
I owe her.

She, of course, does not know my debt.
Has no idea.

19 years ago, when my baby was born with both Down Syndrome and a heart defect...and I was wondering how anyone mothers three children in any successful way, let alone a child with a disability in the mix, she graced my life.

She taught pilates out of her home.

I don't know how I found out about her class.
I have no idea who was watching my three kids 
while I did pilates in her home...
but somehow the universe made it happen and my heart knew what I needed.

I only did it for a few months.

But, she ended every class with this wisdom:
leading us with big deep breaths...
three times...
Inhale gratitude, Exhale judgment.

That four word phrase and those big deep breaths stuck.
They became a part of me.

In and out...
Sucking up gratitude and exhaling away so much.

In that fragile time of my life, I took the tiniest step forward toward self-care with that pilates class.
I didn't know it then. 
Didn't have the vocabulary or the life experience to be able to talk about that in any real way...
I just knew that those moments at pilates helped give me my breath back.

And, my teacher had no idea.

Years passed.
Breathing in gratitude.
Exhaling judgment.
Guiding student teachers or small children in hard moments with big breaths.
I wanted to say thanks.
Kept meaning to...
but it felt like the time had passed.

I let the thank you sit unsaid.

But today, on my way out of the coffee shop, there she was...she stopped me and introduced me to her daughter, Hope, a grad student working at the Perkins School for the Blind (Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller's school!!)...and we got to talking...and talking...and it was Hope who asked,
"How do you guys know each other?"

Her mom referenced it in three words:
Pilates on Parkside.

And, like a red-checkered picnic blanket, the universe spread out the moment before me.
I knew I could finally thank her for the gifts of restoration and care and breathing and kindness she gave to me.

Through tears, I asked if she remembered the way she ended her class all those years ago.
She shook her head no.

I did.

Inhale gratitude.
Exhale judgment.

My time with Hope and her mom was rare and precious...we all could feel it...
and we all knew it couldn't end right then...
but real life was in our way.
Places to be.

We decided to meet later that afternoon.

Who does that?

People who listen to their heart.

In that precious afternoon chunk, Hope and I talked about people with disabilities, opportunities, inclusion, barriers, common sense, education, systemic problems and so much more.

It was kismet.
A sunshine spiral.

I still can't believe it happened.

All we have is today...and the people who cross our this moment, 
right now.

For some blessed reason, today, my heart was listening...right when Hope and Dion called my name.

Tonight, I take a deep, fresh breath of gratitude...for kindness and kismet...wrapped up in Hope.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Doing It On Your Own

It's been 86 days since my son went away to college.

It's been the longest he's ever been away from me and the farthest he's ever been from me physically.
He's across the country at George Mason University.

He's a California kid - see shorts that he's wearing in November - and he lives most of the time in Virginia now.

There aren't any four year college programs here in California.

Our search for colleges that are created especially for people with intellectual disabilities took us all over the country...but sadly, hardly anywhere in the west.

Every single step I wondered if it was right.

I tried to follow Patrick's lead...tried to gauge whether it was he who cared about college or me.

I wanted to be careful about pressuring him into something that wasn't I have an intense desire for each of my children to live their authentic life, not mine.

But with someone with a disability, there is usually more parent participation and looking for college was no different.

He applied.
He interviewed.
He got accepted.

And then the hard part began...we had to imagine what life without Patrick in our every day sphere would mean.

We had to be okay with him going.
We had to be more than okay...we had to be excited for him...and shove our fears and worries to the side.

86 days ago he moved into a dorm.

He lives with two other people with disabilities and a typical student who is a 4th year mechanical engineering major...from New Jersey.
His name is Stav.

This was Stav and Patrick on Move In Day...and the friendship has only grown.

What's happened for Patrick is a lot of growth...personally and emotionally. 
But something else has happened...something that you wish for each of your children and almost never can picture for your adult child with a disability.

Patrick has found a COMMUNITY.
He has something that Dr. Erik Carter from Vanderbilt University identifies so well:

It has developed slowly over these months...but today, 86 days later, it is easy to spot.

When we visited Patrick and were dropping him back off in his dorm, a friend saw him, opened the door to his own room and yelled to another friend,
"Patrick's back!"

Dr. Carter speaks about true Belonging as "an ache when someone is missing" and there it was...
people noticed he was gone...people wanted him back.

He had his peeps.

When we call him and Facetime him, he is often surrounded with people:

He is busy and learning alongside of friends.

TOGETHER they have strength and courage
...they can do the hard things...
they can work through the glitches and figure it out.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we called Patrick and there were four people holding up his foot.
He showed us their faces and we asked what was going on.

Patrick had a blister...a little blood...and his crew was working together to figure out how to help.


This is what we all long for...what our hearts yearn for...
we crave connection.

Today, Patrick flies across the country on his own for Thanksgiving...
only we know the truth.

This HUGE milestone would not be possible if it wasn't for the experiences he has had over these 
86 days.

He's not alone.
He has a friend of mine who is willing to take him to the airport, guide him through security and show him the way.

He has a community that believes in him 

Isn't that what we all need?

Watching Patrick has made me more determined than ever to create a community where I live that offers that same beauty of welcome and belonging.
Support and kindness.

Patrick is living a life that is all his...with support from so many.

That's the kind of world we all want.
The kind we all need.

This Thanksgiving, we will count milestones and blessings and be clear...
none of us do this on our own.

We need each other.
Together, with all our foibles and fumbles, we are better.

Grateful doesn't cover it.